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The mystery of Moss

I'm 30 feet from him in the Minnesota locker room last night, a full first down away, and I see him and he sees me. We don't know each other well at all. He begins limping over to me through a crowd in the smallish locker room under Lambeau Field. He has this incredibly wild hair, a wooly 'fro bigger than Linc's in Mod Squad and he's wearing a frayed Superman T-shirt. He's limping because of his sprained right ankle. And I'm thinking, Why is this lightning rod walking over to me?

"How you doin'?'' Moss says. "Good to see you.'' And he's gone.

A few minutes later, I would get to ask Moss about his little "celebration'' in the end zone after his second touchdown in Minnesota's 31-17 wild-card win over the Packers. You probably saw it. I witnessed it live, from high above Lambeau Field in the press box, and never again, because FOX and, later, ESPN, must have had some sort of pact with the United States Human Decency Dept. (a.k.a., "The NFL'') and never showed a replay that I saw. It looked like Moss simulated a dropping of his pants and a mooning of the crowd. Then he appeared to shake his rump at the goal post, almost like he was trying to scratch his rear end. Just plain weird. Moss will be fined by the NFL. I guarantee it. I don't know the amount. Maybe $10,000. But this was classless. Simulation-mooning Lambeau is like mooning the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Nonsensical. After the game, no one could figure out why he'd done it.

"It wasn't mean,'' he told me and a few other reporters at his locker. "I was having fun. It was more a fun thing than a hatred thing. My teammates loved it. I'm probably gonna catch hell, but the Green Bay Packers fans know: I don't forget s---.''

Evidently he was upset about things Green Bay fans had said to him on previous trips to Lambeau, though he didn't elaborate. Whatever his motivation was, it wasn't cool.

Now, it's not as bad as driving into the traffic control officer in Minneapolis, as Moss did two years ago, or walking off the field early last week. It's just bush, like John Randle lifting his leg after sacking a quarterback and pretending to urinate on the fallen player. Walking out of the locker room on Sunday, I thought to myself: We all know someone like Moss. He's a guy who doesn't like to be told what to do. When he's told what to do, he won't do it. He'll do what he wants, when he wants. And because he's so talented, no one ever stands up to him (at least until Matt Birk did last week) and says, "Hey, doofus. It's a team sport. How about joining the team?''

Last week, after the weirdness in Washington, Moss promised coach Mike Tice he'd make it up to him. He'd do some interviews and clarify why he did what he did and take the distraction away from the team. Fine. So Andrea Kremer shows up with the ESPN crew, and asks Moss if Tice is the right coach for this team. Moss paused for about as long as it takes to drive across Minnesota. What was he waiting for, for God's sake! Just say, "Of course coach Tice is the man for the job.'' But no. here's how he "helped'' Mike Tice -- by saying he wasn't sure if Tice was the right guy or wasn't the right guy, but he has Tice's back. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

I came to this game thinking much of the rest of the team would be ticked off at Moss because of what he did at Washington. I planned to ask if these players thought, long-term, he should be a Viking or if he'd become too much of a distraction for the team's good. A bunch of the tightly braided Vikes had let their hair out, with Moss, as a show of unity, which was the first sign that they had Moss' back. Tight end Jermaine Wiggins typified what this team was feeling about Moss, which is this: They don't want him to be traded, under any circumstances.

"Randy's a player," Wiggins said. "All I care about is he comes to play every Sunday. All the other stuff ... if he does it, it's a big deal. If someone else does it, it's water under the bridge. I feel his pain."

When the crowd cleared out from Moss' locker, I stayed to ask him one thing.

"Did you know you were playing for your coach's job today?''

"You think so?'' he said. "You serious?''

"Very serious,'' I said. "A bad loss, and I think Tice was gone.''

"Man, that ain't right. Coach Tice don't deserve that. Cut-throat business, man.''

I gave you my All-Pro team last Tuesday. Here are the rest of the awards the AP doesn't ask for:

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Cam Cameron, San Diego. He choreographed a dangerous unit even when LaDainian Tomlinson was hurting and he designed ways to help make Drew Brees a productive downfield thrower.

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Gregg Williams, Washington. Usually, Dan Snyder's millions buy only disappointment. This year, they bought a good unit made into an excellent attacking scheme by Williams. How interesting is it that of all the millions Snyder has spent on coaches, the best he's ever bought is a defensive coordinator whose contract is worth about 15 percent of Steve Spurrier's.

SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Bobby April, Buffalo. Canned by the Rams, April built a prideful unit in Buffalo. And productive: Four kick or punt returns for touchdowns and a superb punt team in bad weather.

ASSISTANT COACH: Russ Grimm, offensive line coach, Pittsburgh. The 2003 Steelers were second-worst in the league running the ball, at 93 yards per game. The 2004 Steelers were second-best in the league running the ball, at 154 yards per game. Grimm doesn't stand for mediocrity, which is why teams are interested in him as a head coach.

OWNER: Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh. Consistency. Every coach wishes he could work for Rooney because all he asks for is your best effort every day. If you give that, and you have a modicum of success, Rooney's going to back you till the cows come home.

GM: A.J. Smith, San Diego. Early in 2004, in the months after his first season as GM ended, Smith heard the drumbeats. Clean out the Chargers offices, from Smith and coach Marty Schottenheimer on down. Start over. Fire everyone. "Marty's gone, I'm in over my head, we've got no players, and we're going after a bunch of nobodies in free-agency,'' Smith said. "I heard it all. And I thought: How unfair. Judge us after three, four, five years, not one.'' Those nobodies have been terrific. Outside linebacker Steve Foley -- maybe the biggest weakside OLB I've ever seen at 262 -- has tormented protection schemes all year. And Smith handled the Eli Manning soap opera perfectly. The third-round pick he got as the first piece of the Manning/Philip Rivers deal turned into a very good young kicker, Nate Kaeding. Smith's patience will be further rewarded in April, when the Chargers take the 12th overall pick from the Giants, plus New York's fifth, to finish off the trade. Look for the Chargers to re-sign Brees short-term and hang onto Rivers long-term.

1. Pittsburgh (15-1). Thank you, Mr. Bye. Jerome Bettis' ankle and Plaxico Burress' hammy really needed you.

2. New England (14-2). Pats are 18-0 at home in the last two years. That's the good news. Look in Rehabville. That's the bad news.

3. Philadelphia (13-3). Thirty-five days since their last good offensive game.

4. Indianapolis (13-4). Just remember two things about the last Indy-New England game, which was Game 1 of the NFL regular season back in September. Colts trailed 20-17 in the third quarter and were driving to tie or go up when Edgerrin James fumbled at the Pats' 18. Colts trailed 27-24 in the fourth quarter and were knocking at the door, at the New England 1, when James carried and fumbled again. Two lost fumbles, both in the red zone, both in the last 21 minutes of the game. Colts gained 446 yards that day ... with Tyrone Poole and Ty Law in the starting lineup. This could be a whole different kettle of fish.

5. New York Jets (11-6). I like how Chad Pennington responded, even with his wounded wing.

6. Atlanta (11-5). Points for: 340. Points against: 337. How does a team with its record have just three more points scored than given up?

7. San Diego (12-5). I don't know. It looked like they just didn't attack very much on Saturday night. I love the way Brees throws downfield, but he just didn't do much of that against the Jets.

8. St. Louis (9-8). Three wins in a row, 79 points scored. Could the old Rams be taking the show on the road in this playoff season?

9. (tie) Minnesota (9-8). "I don't know if I've ever coached in a game with as much pressure attached to it,'' Tice told his wife yesterday morning.

Green Bay (10-7). Ahmad Carroll looks like a horrendous first-round bust.

11. Denver (10-7). You know, nothing that happened in Indy should be a surprise. The Broncos don't have the defensive front to upset Peyton Manning's timing, and when you don't have that, Manning's going to put up a lot of points -- in this case, 49 -- on you.

12. Baltimore (9-7). One of the following will be a Raven in 2005: Plaxico Burress, Randy Moss, Muhsin Muhammad, T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

13. New Orleans (8-8). Jim Haslett kisses and makes up with GM Mickey Loomis in three days of meetings in Florida. Even though word on the New Orleans street is that Haslett still thinks Loomis is a lightweight, they're going to stay married. For the kids' sake, I guess. Must be nice to work for Tom Benson, by the way. Haslett's 32-32 with zero playoff appearances in the last four years.

14. Carolina (7-9). Weird ... 3-3 in the division, 6-6 in the NFC, 4-4 on the road and just 3-5 at home.

15. (tie) Buffalo (9-7). I think the Bills need to think long and hard about whether Drew Bledsoe will be their opening-day 2005 quarterback.

Miami (4-12). Played pretty well the last month, then hired Nick Saban. No team's had a better postseason so far.

Offensive Player of the Week

(tie) St. Louis QB Marc Bulger, who became the first quarterback of a .500 team to win an NFL playoff game in Seattle by playing a cool hand in the Rams win. It wasn't the stats, necessarily, though he threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns, including the play-action pass to Cam Cleeland that won it. It was how he played. The guy just gives you the feeling he's in control at all times and nothing fazes him.

Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning. He is playing on a different planet than everyone else: 27 of 33, 457 making-it-look-far-too-easy yards (a record 360 yards in the first half), four touchdowns, one pick.

Defensive Player of the Week

Minnesota CB Antoine Winfield, whose 11 tackles helped the Vikings hold the Packers to 306 total yards, and whose interception and pass defense helped stymie Brett Favre in the 31-17 Vikes win. What a Godsend signing him as a free agent last winter.

Special Teams Player of the Week

(tie) Minnesota LB Dontarrious Thomas and long-snapper Cullen Loeffler, who combined to make the type of tackle at Lambeau that all special-team coaches should show their charges. Punter Darren Bennett skied one and they hustled off blocks to pin Pack returner Antonio Chatman back, making him run sideways and then back for a four-yard loss.

Coach of the Week

St. Louis's Mike Martz. You can say whatever you want about Martz the coach and Martz the nutty professor. But his teams are 44-25 over the past four seasons, including playoffs. And he is the best developer of young quarterbacks since Bill Walsh. Period. Look at the three quarterbacks Martz has tutored and won with, two especially. Trent Green, seventh-round pick. Kurt Warner, free agent. Marc Bulger, sixth-round pick cut by New Orleans, picked up off the street by Martz. When Martz was quarterbacks coach for the Redskins in 1997-98, Green was just a kid. But the young QB played well enough to earn a free-agent deal and follow Martz to St. Louis when Martz took the Rams' offensive coordinator job in 1999. Green got hurt in training camp that year. Martz said to the Ram front-office: Don't go out and sign Jeff Hostetler to get us through the storm. We can win with Kurt Warner. Warner won a Super Bowl and two MVPs. Then Warner became mortal and Martz figured he could win the terminally cool Bulger. And Bulger was terrific on Saturday, leading the Rams to a 27-20 win in Seattle with 313 yards passing, so many of them when they counted. Martz is 19 games over .500 over the past four years, people.

Goat of the Week

New York Jets LB Eric Barton. We can argue day and night if an official should make such a big call at the time. Ed Hochuli did. (I think absolutely he should.) Jets up 17-10, 16 seconds to go in the fourth quarter, a blitzing Barton nails the Chargers' QB Brees ... and that would have been permissible, probably, if it were just a hard tackle of Brees as he released a pass. But Barton gave him a ridiculous forearm shiver to the head. Hochuli had no choice. He had to make the call. The Chargers scored on a one-yard pass to Antonio Gates on the next play, forcing an overtime the Jets should never have had to play. "I made a stupid mistake,'' Barton said. At least he admitted it. And he said what I thought: "I saw the replay and it was a good call.''

Freshman forward Meghan Cowher scored 28 points with nine rebounds to lead Princeton's women's basketball team over St. Peter's last week. She leads the Tigers in points and minutes played.

(Daughter of Bill.)

Shaping up to be a pretty nice 2005 for the Cowher family, isn't it?

Factoids, actually. Nuggets gleaned from the 2005 NFL schedule:

Auld Lang Saban: Football pals Bill Belichick and Nick Saban -- who, until this offseason, broke down defenses together in an annual retreat -- will meet twice, of course, now that Saban's coaching the Dolphins.

Eli's Coming: Somehow I don't see Eli Manning -- or his dad -- retiring to La Jolla. But the Giants will play at San Diego next fall. Buy some earplugs, kid.

Game of the Year: Steel Curtain at Peyton Manning. Let's see how fast the Jamesfarriors can be on the RCA rug.

Going Bicoastal: The Chargers get on the Acela to play at New England, at the Jets, at Philly and at Washington. (Wouldn't it be fun if the league scheduled those games four in a row and the Chargers stayed east, barnstorming their way down the coast on Amtrak? What's that, Mr. Schottenheimer? You say you'd rather hang yourself?) The Giants fight the headwinds to play at Seattle, at Oakland, at San Francisco and at San Diego.

The Graybeard Bowl: Gibbs plays at Vermeil.

The Dan Snyder Bowls: Schottenheimer and Norv Turner play at Washington. I predict there will be no pregame Starbucksing with the Redskins owner.

"If you guys in the media didn't make something out of nothing, you'd be out of a job. What would you do? You go out and find these meaningless stats, these blurps of history. That was 60, 70 years ago ... however long it was, 30 years ago, whatever. We don't worry about that. We're worrying about the now and now we're getting ready for the playoffs.''

-- Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas, after being told by beat man Reuben Frank of the Burlington County (N.J.) Times and that it's been 37 years since a team lost its last two regular-season games and went on to win the Super Bowl.

As United Express flight 5812 from Chicago to Green Bay descended from the clouds last Friday morning, the pilot picked up the microphone to thank us for flying the friendly skies. "Hopefully the Packers can get a win this weekend,'' he said. "It'll allow us to make more fun of Randy Moss on Monday morning.''